How “fair” is your product? Bringing an ethical lens to your work

There is a growing awareness that companies should apply the discipline of ethics to creating products and services. Consumers increasingly care about the ethical impact of the brands they choose to support. In fact, research shows that purpose-driven brands that align with consumers’ beliefs outperform those who fail to adapt. In order to compete, businesses need to evaluate the holistic impact of their work, including their sustainability practices, employee compensation and working conditions, and societal effects.

But incorporating ethics into your work isn’t always easy. It requires a fundamental look at your company’s mission, values, and impact. One way that our team at Artefact assesses the impact of our work is by examining it through a set of ethical lenses. In this article, we’ll explore one ethical lens we feel is often overlooked but has great potential to drive innovation and business value: the fairness approach.

What are ethical lenses?

Ethical lenses offer different ways to look at moral dilemmas. Santa Clara University’s Markkula Center for Applied Ethics outlines five ethical approaches through which to analyze a product or service. Informed by philosophical tradition and academic thought, these ethical frameworks include: the common good approach, the fairness or justice approach, the rights approach, the utilitarian approach, and the virtue approach.

The lenses don’t provide a solution or suggest an absolute right from wrong. Instead, they help you surface questions about your products and services that you might not have considered and help change the way you frame a challenge. This is why we think ethical lenses can be a powerful design tool. New innovation stems from looking at a problem from a different angle.

The fairness or justice lens

The fairness lens – sometimes called the justice lens – evaluates scenarios based on whether they provide a fair distribution of benefits and burdens across stakeholder groups. According to the Markkula Center, the fairness lens originated from the teachings of ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle, who said that, “equals should be treated equally and unequals unequally.” The fairness lens addresses moral questions such as: how fair is this action? Are we treating groups as they should be treated? Is there undue favoritism or unjust discrimination?

In a business context, companies typically consider the impact of their products and services on key stakeholders such as investors, consumers, and those who make and deliver the company’s products and services. It’s intuitive for a business to try to minimize harm to their employees and suppliers, for example, as they are people more likely to fall within a company’s purview. Considering the needs of stakeholders who aren’t part of your value chain takes more deliberate intention. The fairness lens can help you think through your impact on other, possibility forgotten, stakeholders.

The fairness lens in action

How do you apply the fairness lens to your work? We took inspiration from carbon offset programs in the airline industry to demonstrate how to apply this ethical approach. This example takes into consideration an unlikely stakeholder group: the non-user. By thinking about stakeholders more broadly, we demonstrate how you can unlock new forms of value for customers.

1. Make an exhaustive list of your stakeholders and identify the distribution of benefits and burdens created by your business.

When it comes to air travel, our ability to jump on a plane offers many benefits to the user and society. It improves quality of life, creates jobs, and results in increased economic activity. However, it also creates numerous negative externalities including air, noise, and water pollution. In fact, every round-trip trans-Atlantic flight emits enough carbon dioxide to melt 30 square feet of Arctic sea ice. 

What is more striking is that less than 20 percent of the global population enjoys the benefits of flying, yet everyone on the planet shares in these environmental burdens. Moreover, the effects of climate change will adversely affect the global poor who more commonly inhabit the regions of the world most susceptible to global warming.

2. Identify whether this distribution is fair and why.

Is the group that benefits from your business sharing in the burden? These are subjective questions that will likely require your team to reference your mission statement and values. In the case of airlines, their service has an unequal impact on stakeholder groups: non-users carry the burden created by users.

3. Explore how to correct for a fairer distribution of benefits and burdens.

In 2007, Delta became the first U.S. airline to offer customers an option to offset the carbon emissions incurred from their flight. Delta offers a carbon calculator on their website where customers can determine the environmental impact of their flight and what it would cost to offset the equivalent carbon. Customers can then choose to fund efforts led by the Nature Conservancy to measurably improve the atmosphere.

Carbon offsets are one way to consider the needs of the 80 percent of the world who are airline “non-users” – a majority of whom will never fly on a plane. Other efforts in the industry aim to avoid creating the burden in the first place. Emirates states in their annual sustainability report that reducing carbon emissions is best addressed by investing in state-of-the-art planes. With an average fleet age of 5.3 years, Emirates has one of the most modern, low-emission fleets in the industry. 

These initiatives not only have environmental benefits, but also help airlines further strengthen relationships with customers who seek to engage with companies that share their values.

Ethics as innovation

The fairness lens helps you assess whether your product or service is creating inequities that you should be aware of. It can jump-start the process to launching new features or services that not only mitigate harmful effects but also differentiate your offering in the marketplace.

In the case of commercial air travel, carbon offsets and investing in fuel-efficient planes are just a few ways to create a fairer distribution of burdens. Applying the fairness lens could result in other actions such as airlines using renewables as a fuel source, or rideshare companies requiring the use of electric cars. The possibilities are endless. It’s this bold thinking that excites us, and the fairness lens can show us the way.